Colin Thubron

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The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond: An Ac­count of Jour­neys in China, Chiefly in the Prov­ince of

Sze Chuan and among the Man-tze of the Somo Ter­ri­tory by Mrs. J. F. Bishop (Is­abella L. Bird)

The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond: An Ac­count of Jour­neys in China, Chiefly in the Prov­ince of

Sze Chuan and among the

Man-tze of the Somo Ter­ri­tory by Mrs. J. F. Bishop (Is­abella L. Bird), with an in­tro­duc­tion by

Dervla Mur­phy.

Lon­don: Fo­lio So­ci­ety, 420 pp., $112.00

Ever since the Ro­mans imag­ined an em­pire of elysian peace at the east­ern limit of the world, China has been the repos­i­tory of West­ern fan­tasy and delu­sion. More than three cen­turies ago Leib­niz mar­veled at the coun­try’s ru­mored en­light­en­ment, and Voltaire cited its sec­u­lar gov­er­nance as a de­sir­able model for France. For many decades after­ward, the im­age of a wil­low-pat­terned realm en­shrined in its own past proved quaintly durable. But with the de­cline of the Qing dy­nasty dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tury this ide­al­ized China wore thin. West­ern dis­il­lu­sion was fed by hearsay and the re­ports of traders. In 1821

By­ron charged China with “the mis­er­able hap­pi­ness of a sta­tion­ary and un­war­like medi­ocrity,” and Emer­son soon quipped that the sum­mit of Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence was how to make tea. Of­ten the coun­try be­came an ob­ject of West­ern ridicule, per­ceived as a land of cor­rupt and in­san­i­tary hea­thens whose once-ad­mired man­dar­i­nate had sunk into pedantry. Cru­cial to West­ern per­cep­tions were the two Opium Wars, fought be­tween 1839 and 1860, in which Bri­tain, by a se­ries of co­er­cive pacts, forced open fif­teen “treaty ports” to out­side trade and set­tle­ment, and es­tab­lished the im­port of opium. Now the whole of China, weak­ened by civil wars, fell prey to West­ern mer­chants, mis­sion­ar­ies, and ex­plor­ers. The Yangtze val­ley, in par­tic­u­lar, was claimed as a Bri­tish “sphere of in­flu­ence” in 1898, a claim that thrust deep into the coun­try’s heart.

The Yangtze is the third-long­est river in the world. It di­vides the coun­try from Ti­bet in the west to the Pa­cific in the east, cre­at­ing an imag­ined boundary be­tween a mar­tial north and a mer­can­tile south. Then as now, its wa­ter­shed was home to al­most one third of China’s pop­u­la­tion. It was at once their lifeblood and tor­ment, its lower reaches fur­nish­ing the coun­try’s rice gra­nary while un­leash­ing cat­a­strophic floods. There was no other river, wrote Pearl Buck, that could equal it for beauty and cru­elty.

Dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tury only a hand­ful of for­eign trav­el­ers pen­e­trated west through the Yangtze’s stu­pen­dous gorges into the up­lands beyond. The jour­ney was dan­ger­ous both for the remoteness of the ter­rain and for its hos­tile in­hab­i­tants. Yet al­most the first Westerner to travel here was a six­ty­four-year-old woman in pre­car­i­ous health whose mo­tives ex­tended beyond vis­it­ing mis­sion sta­tions to sheer cu­rios­ity and an in­tense crav­ing for per­sonal free­dom. Is­abella

Bird’s The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond, first pub­lished in 1899, was her last travel book. By then she was ac­claimed, though not happy, in her na­tive Eng­land. Be­neath the mea­sured and au­thor­i­ta­tive calm of her writ­ing per­sona lay con­flicted is­sues and emo­tions that her long and tax­ing jour­neys could al­le­vi­ate but not re­solve.

Born in 1831, she came from a Vic­to­rian mi­lieu in which the sta­tus of a sin­gle woman—she mar­ried only late, and re­luc­tantly—was bleakly low. Her fa­ther was a coun­try vicar, a rel­a­tive of Wil­liam Wilberforce, the pi­o­neer­ing cru­sader against the slave trade. It was

per­haps the re­stricted life pre­scribed by mid­dle-class pro­pri­ety that caused Bird’s de­bil­ity. From an ac­tive, boy­ish girl she de­clined into a semi-in­valid af­flicted by “ner­vous ex­haus­tion,” neu­ral­gia, glan­du­lar fever, and chronic spinal pain for which her doc­tor pre­scribed a steel mesh to sup­port her head when sit­ting up. She ac­cused her­self of be­com­ing stupid and feared pre­ma­ture old age. Many of her symp­toms now sug­gest psy­cho­log­i­cal causes, and her fa­ther took the dras­tic but per­cep­tive step of giv­ing her £100 to travel and telling her to re­turn only af­ter she had spent it. In her day it was com­mon knowl­edge that “a change of air” could be ben­e­fi­cial, and at the age of twenty-three Bird set off for North Amer­ica, where her health mirac­u­lously im­proved. There­after, it seems, her health and hap­pi­ness in­creased in pro­por­tion to the wild­ness, chal­lenge, and some­times dan­ger of wher­ever she was go­ing. Over the next forty years her jour­neys took her through the Rockies, Ja­pan, Hawaii, Malaya, the Hi­malayas, Per­sia, Ti­bet, Korea, and at last China. Other for­eign­ers be­fore her had as­cended the Yangtze river val­ley, no­tably the Bri­tish ex­plorer Thomas Blak­iston in 1861 and the Chi­nese-speak­ing busi­ness­man Archibald John Lit­tle; but apart from mis­sion­ar­ies, wrote Lit­tle in 1888, such ex­plor­ers num­bered no more than five. Fol­low­ing their sober nar­ra­tives, Is­abella Bird recorded a jour­ney not only of enor­mous reach but of vivid and in­ti­mate ob­ser­va­tion. The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond is packed with the de­tails char­ac­ter­is­tic of nine­teenth-cen­tury ex­plor­ers bring­ing back first­hand knowl­edge, but it is rich too in per­sonal in­sights and en­coun­ters, and it is shad­owed by con­tra­dic­tions, some of them typ­i­cal of Bird’s era, some of them her own.

This am­biva­lence sur­faces the mo­ment she ar­rives in Shanghai. She de­scribes with un­feigned ad­mi­ra­tion the build­ings of the English set­tle­ment,

with its banks, ship­ping of­fices, and his­toric firms. Its or­der and well-be­ing, she writes, show “to the whole East what can be ac­com­plished by an hon­est and thor­oughly ef­fi­cient Bri­tish lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion.” Then she slyly sup­poses that the sea­sonal hu­mid­ity must dis­in­cline the ex­pa­tri­ate res­i­dents to any se­ri­ous read­ing, and that house­boat pic­nics, shoot­ing ex­pe­di­tions, pony rac­ing (“the prospects of the sta­bles make great in­roads on con­ver­sa­tion”), and even child­ish pa­per chases are an es­cape from in­cip­i­ent bore­dom:

The tremen­dous en­ergy with which Shanghai amuses it­self dur­ing seven months of the year is some­thing phe­nom­e­nal. It is even a fa­tigue to con­tem­plate it.

She sug­gests that things might be bet­ter, at least for busi­ness, if the Bri­tish men were to give to the learn­ing of Chi­nese “a lit­tle of the time which is lav­ished on sport and other amuse­ments” and cas­ti­gates “re­liance on that limited and abom­inable vo­cab­u­lary known as ‘pid­gun.’” As for the in­dige­nous Chi­nese city that co­hab­its with the for­eign set­tle­ments:

To men­tion na­tive Shanghai in for­eign ears po­lite [sic] seems scarcely seemly; it brands the speaker as an out­side bar­bar­ian, a per­son of “odd ten­den­cies.” It is bad form to show any in­ter­est in it and worse to visit it. Few of the lady res­i­dents in the set­tle­ment have seen it, and both men and women may live in Shanghai for years and leave it with­out mak­ing the ac­quain­tance of their near­est neigh­bour.

The so­ci­ety of Bri­tish Shanghai was clearly too close a re­flec­tion of the con­fined home life from which Bird was flee­ing. The chap­ter ti­tle that she de­votes to the city—“The Model Set­tle­ment”—is tinged with irony. By now she is long­ing to en­ter a more vi­brant China. She hires a launch to Hangzhou, a me­trop­o­lis of an­cient re­fine­ment, whose thir­teen-mile walls (now van­ished) en­closed the stone­flagged streets of wealthy silk mer­chants and over­looked a lake that is still beau­ti­ful. By Jan­uary 1896 she is sail­ing to­ward Ichang at the foot of the five-hun­dred-mile gorges that are the con­duit be­tween low­land China and the rich re­gion of Sichuan, a prov­ince then al­most as large as France. Here she must re­lin­quish her stern-wheel steamer for a frail house­boat and nav­i­gate the river’s long, vi­o­lent pas­sage to the west. Her craft is a shal­low­bot­tomed relic with a sin­gle mast and a range of cramped cab­ins astern, their beams rot­ted, their pa­per-glazed win­dows split­ting. Here the de­vi­ous skip­per, his cring­ing son, and his vi­rago wife (who beat to death her other son a few months ear­lier) live in rowdy squalor, while in the bows six­teen row­ers heave against the cur­rent and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep, and some­times in­vade her cabin. It is freez­ing cold.

The as­cent of these mag­nif­i­cent gorges—eased to­day by the ad­vent of dams and steam­ers—was cruel and ex­tra­or­di­nary, and no bet­ter de­scrip­tion of it ex­ists than Bird’s. Where per­pen­dic­u­lar cliffs con­stricted the Yangtze into a fear­some tor­rent, big junks and sam­pans were hauled up­river by teams of track­ers some­times four hun­dred strong, thread­ing pre­cip­i­tous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the ex­plo­sion of fire­crack­ers to in­tim­i­date the spirit of the rapids. For hours they la­bored up­ward, chant­ing, half-naked, and haul­ing on 1,200-foot bam­boo ca­bles. Some­times the ca­bles snapped, the track­ers fell on their faces, and the junks ca­reered down­river into splin­ter­ing wreck­age. Mean­while up to one hun­dred oars­men might be strain­ing aboard the larger boats, in peril of drown­ing.

The steep shores and in­lets were lit­tered with ships’ re­mains, and with hu­man skele­tons. The con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese Gazetteer noted about one thousand rapids and dan­ger­ous boul­ders along the gorges’ cor­ri­dor. Ev­ery year some five hun­dred junks went to the bot­tom, of­ten with their crews. Bird was a woman of strange, in­flex­i­ble courage. Once the gorges were

be­hind her, she dis­em­barked at the teem­ing city of Wanx­ian and con­tin­ued over­land, car­ried by sedan chair (the only suit­able trans­port) for hun­dreds of miles across north­ern and cen­tral Sichuan. A team of porters and bear­ers with a proud and touchy in­ter­preter es­corted her along nar­row dykes be­tween paddy fields, down de­cayed im­pe­rial roads and moun­tain tracks.

It was a jour­ney of pas­toral beauty, through a rich, flow­er­ing coun­try. This was a re­gion al­most un­known to for­eign­ers. With its canopied bridges and wa­ter­mills and tem­ples ris­ing from bam­boo and cedar groves, it in­tox­i­cated Bird by its sheer lux­u­ri­ance, and by its con­form­ity to some child­hood ex­pec­ta­tion (the word “pic­turesque” re­curs), as if she were trav­el­ing through a time­less Cathay.

Of­ten she ap­proached a town or vil­lage that em­anated pic­turesque charm, but on her en­ter­ing its gates it would turn out to be squalid and its in­hab­i­tants abu­sive. In lo­cal stop­ping places she slept along­side pigs and, once, a cof­fin (not empty). Un­like Chi­nese women, she trav­eled in a bas­ket-chair where she sat ex­posed to view, and she in­ex­pli­ca­bly wore a Ja­pane­ses­tyle hat (China had lost a war with Ja­pan a year ear­lier). She was fre­quently mobbed and in­sulted. In one town she al­most lost her life to the hos­tile rab­ble that in­vaded her inn; in an­other she was con­cussed by a hurled stone whose wound ached for a year after­ward.

Much of the world she evoked has dis­ap­peared. De­for­esta­tion and col­lec­tive farm­ing have taken their toll on the ru­ral land­scape, and city walls and tem­ples were rav­aged dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. But travel nar­ra­tives be­come his­tory, and Bird’s scrupu­lous de­scrip­tions and painstak­ing pho­to­graphs have taken on the price­less value of archival records.

Her pho­to­graphs, in par­tic­u­lar, re­ceive full jus­tice in this op­u­lent Fo­lio So­ci­ety edi­tion. More than a hun­dred are re­pro­duced in large for­mat. Be­fore leav­ing Eng­land she had re­ceived lessons from the Scot­tish pi­o­neer of travel pho­tog­ra­phy, John Thom­son, and had stud­ied how to de­velop and print from film. Her six­teen-pound tri­pod cam­era and a lighter, hand-held cam­era were the most pre­cious items in her bag­gage, se­creted be­neath the seat of her sedan chair. Af­ter sun­set she would set about de­vel­op­ing the glass-plate neg­a­tives and ton­ing her prints. Her dark­room was the Chi­nese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chem­i­cal from her neg­a­tives in the river and hung the print­ing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud sur­vives on a few of her prints. Pho­tog­ra­phy had be­come a pas­sion for her. A mis­sion­ary with whom she stayed, Rev­erend Wal­she, de­scribes her sin­gle-mind­edly at work: “Even in the face of the largest and nois­i­est crowds, Mrs Bishop pro­ceeded with her pho­tog­ra­phy and ob­ser­va­tion as calmly as if she were in­spect­ing some of the Chi­nese ex­hi­bi­tions in the Bri­tish Mu­seum.” A grainy pho­to­graph shows her stand­ing be­side her tri­pod cam­era while a crowd of Chi­nese has as­sem­bled to watch. She is star­ing un­smil­ing at the viewer: a small, stout woman (she was less than five feet tall) wear­ing the heavy coat in whose deep pock­ets she kept a por­ta­ble oil lamp and a loaded re­volver. She looks ut­terly com­posed. Her pho­to­graphs are chiefly of build­ings and land­scapes, and rest in the sepia calm of a dis­tant age. And there are oth­ers. In one, her Yangtze track­ers take their meal in two hud­dled ranks, sur­prised by the cam­era. In an­other, a trio of man­darin women with bound feet stare doll-like into the lens, as if for­bid­den public ex­pres­sion. There are hard-faced porters, bizarrely cos­tumed sol­diers, mis­sion­ar­ies. And some­times the cam­era in­trudes un­bear­ably. A grim trin­ity of leper women con­fronts the viewer with their sor­row, and a skele­tal man, an­other leper, perches on a stool, his mouth gap­ing in a black, nose­less skull. It is hard to be­lieve that he’s alive.

Bird’s fear­less­ness seems of one essence with this chill­ing ded­i­ca­tion be­hind the cam­era. In her writ­ing too there are mo­ments of foren­sic de­tach­ment. While re­turn­ing down the Yangtze, she records with­out flinch­ing:

I saw one big junk strike a rock while fly­ing down a rapid and dis­ap­pear as if she had been blown up, her large crew, at the height of vi­o­lent ef­fort the mo­ment be­fore, with all its fran­tic and noisy ac­com­pa­ni­ments, per­ish­ing with her.

In the next sen­tence she is dis­cussing pas­sen­ger boats.

With this ap­par­ent un­feel­ing­ness— the splin­ter of ice in the writer’s heart iden­ti­fied by Gra­ham Greene—the writ­ing per­sona seems in­su­lated from the sen­tient woman. “In­dig­na­tion stays at home,” wrote Elias Canetti of trav­el­ing. “One looks, one lis­tens, one is roused to en­thu­si­asm by the most dread­ful things be­cause they are new. Good trav­el­ers are heart­less.”

Among the con­tra­dic­tions crowd­ing into Bird’s work on China, her es­ti­mate of the Chi­nese them­selves is the most com­plex. She has wit­nessed too much for sim­ple con­clu­sions, and is largely free of the crude So­cial Dar­win­ism of some of her con­tem­po­raries. Wher­ever she trav­els, she is deeply ad­mir­ing of Chi­nese com­mer­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion, of the stamina, thrift, and re­source­ful­ness of its peo­ple. She es­teems even her ruf­fian track­ers for their en­durance and good hu­mor. This na­tion, she stresses, is heir to an an­cient em­pire, steeped in its own cul­ture and ethics.

Yet through­out her trav­els an­other leit­mo­tif re­curs. The Chi­nese are grossly ma­te­rial and su­per­sti­tious, she writes, and ig­no­rant, cor­rupt, and cun­ning. They are with­out con­science and en­joy no en­light­ened public opin­ion. They are at once con­ser­va­tive and en­ter­pris­ing, clever and be­nighted. In their re­li­gion, Daoist de­mons and a cor­rupted Bud­dhism are fused with the lofty tenets of Con­fu­cius.

In the face of such con­tra­dic­tions she holds firm to her ad­vo­cacy of a sav­ing Bri­tish Em­pire. The book is ded­i­cated to the Mar­quess of Sal­is­bury, the Con­ser­va­tive Bri­tish prime min­is­ter. Per­haps in the ag­ing au­thor a sense of per­sonal grandeur is sur­fac­ing. Her book is bol­stered with ap­pen­dices on trade and ship­ping; it con­cludes with her thoughts on Protes­tant mis­sions, pages of pre­scrip­tive opin­ions, and ends fi­nally with the state­ment—ab­surd only in hind­sight—that the fu­ture wel­fare of China will de­pend on the in­flu­ence of Bri­tain.

Here too she de­scribes the en­fee­bling ef­fect of opium on China (more than 70 per­cent of the in­hab­i­tants of Sichuan were ad­dicted). It was a moral de­bate that en­gaged many trav­el­ers of her time, although Bird never con­fronts Bri­tish cul­pa­bil­ity in forc­ing the im­port of opium. Yet in other pas­sages she gives graphic ac­counts of how this “for­eign smoke” so de­grades its users that they may sell off their wives and chil­dren to in­dulge in it. And else­where she warns against the colo­nial ra­pac­ity that is de­stroy­ing a so­phis­ti­cated cul­ture:

It may be that we go for­ward with “a light heart,” along with other Euro­pean em­pires, not hes­i­tat­ing, for the sake of com­mer­cial ad­van­tages, to break up in the case of a fourth of the hu­man race the most an­cient of earth’s ex­ist­ing civil­i­sa­tions, with­out giv­ing any equiv­a­lent.

A sim­i­lar am­biva­lence trou­bles her at­ti­tude to­ward Chris­tian mis­sions, which had pro­lif­er­ated in the few decades be­fore her jour­ney. Even in re­mote ar­eas she re­ceives their hos­pi­tal­ity. But she was a late and tepid con­vert to mis­sion­ary work. She equates the ad­vent of Chris­tian­ity less with faith than with civ­i­liz­ing West­ern val­ues and ma­te­rial im­prove­ment. Along her way she founds a hos­pi­tal in mem­ory of her beloved sis­ter, who had died in 1880, just as in Kash­mir she had founded one for the man she be­lat­edly mar­ried while still draped in mourn­ing black at the al­tar rail. He died five years later, leav­ing her un­ex­pect­edly bereft.

Now, af­ter es­tab­lish­ing her sis­ter’s hos­pi­tal, she trav­els swiftly on. The mis­sion­ar­ies she por­trays are brave but a lit­tle pa­thetic. Peo­ple laugh at their ser­mons. Con­verts are mis­er­ably few, and all from the poorer classes: “rice Chris­tians” who may have con­verted from ex­pe­di­ency. Bird con­sid­ered the Book of Com­mon Prayer a use­less tool for con­ver­sion, and thought the pros­e­ly­tized Chi­nese them­selves were the best evan­ge­lists for their peo­ple. Her ad­mi­ra­tion is re­served for the priests of the China In­land Mis­sion and those of Ro­man Catholi­cism who adopted lo­cal dress and eti­quette and lived em­bed­ded among a deeply sus­pi­cious peo­ple. To the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, Chris­tian­ity and opium were twin evils to be ex­tir­pated. Mis­sion­ar­ies were even ru­mored to kid­nap in­fants and use their eyes and hearts as medicine. For Bird, there was noth­ing sad­der than to wit­ness women ush­er­ing their chil­dren away when she ap­proached.

Many of Bird’s con­flicted thoughts and feel­ings re­flect the mis­giv­ings of her day. Above all she ached for the re­lease of travel, yet it was travel that ex­posed her in­ner con­tra­dic­tions. She placed her faith in the Bri­tish Em­pire and in Vic­to­rian mores, yet fled the world that held to them. She paid lip ser­vice to Chris­tian mis­sions, while their cer­tainty was not hers. The poverty of Chi­nese life dis­tressed her, but its set­ting brought per­sonal ex­hil­a­ra­tion. When­ever she re­turned to Eng­land, she shrank into ner­vous qui­etude and fell ill.

Eight years ear­lier, op­pressed by the or­derly town life of Ja­pan, she had trav­eled in­stead to re­mote Hokkaido, where she was drawn to the abo­rig­i­nal Ainu tribes. “My chief wish on ar­riv­ing at a for­eign set­tle­ment or treaty port in the East is to get out of it as soon as pos­si­ble,” she wrote. And her Chi­nese jour­ney cul­mi­nates, pre­dictably, at its re­motest reach, as she en­ters the wild moun­tains where a Ti­betan peo­ple in­habit lamaseries and fortress vil­lages above tor­ren­tial rivers, and where the women are equal to the men, and no­body has heard of Eng­land.

The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond is Bird’s most im­por­tant and sub­stan­tial book. She claimed that the jour­ney started with­out lit­er­ary in­tent, and that the work was cob­bled to­gether from notes and jour­nals. But on its pub­li­ca­tion she was bit­terly dis­ap­pointed at its tepid re­cep­tion (the Boer War was dis­tract­ing the na­tion’s at­ten­tion), con­fid­ing in a let­ter, “The in­dif­fer­ence of my friends to my last book, my youngest child, child of my old age, has grieved me much.”

But the child of this re­mark­able woman has been hand­somely res­ur­rected in the present edi­tion, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Dervla Mur­phy that places it deftly in the set­ting of Bird’s trav­el­ing life. Bird’s writ­ing above all is scrupu­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion—some of the finest writ­ten on China. As for the rich­ness of her writ­ing style, her pub­lisher, the ge­nial John Mur­ray IV, wrote that she “was in­ten­tion­ally the most truth­ful of peo­ple, but she had that en­dow­ment...of see­ing in­ci­dents in the su­perla­tive de­gree”—the high col­ors that re­flected her own in­ten­sity. In the end she placed too much con­fi­dence in both the re­silience of the fail­ing Qing dy­nasty and in the in­flu­ence of the Bri­tish Em­pire. But for all the tribu­la­tions of her jour­ney, her fas­ci­na­tion and re­spect for the coun­try sur­vived. Her per­cep­tion of the Chi­nese, in their un­fa­mil­iar com­plex­ity, was earned by hard ex­pe­ri­ence. “It is not an ef­fete or de­cay­ing peo­ple,” she wrote, “which we shall have to meet in se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion when it shall have learned our sciences.”

‘Man­darin’s wife and two daugh­ters with bound feet’; from Is­abella Bird’s The Yangtze Val­ley and Beyond

Is­abella Bird, July 1899

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